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Buying a Browser

If you thought the browser world was stirring again with the fast adoption of Firefox, a new Netscape on the drawing board, an update of IE with a pushed-up schedule, and rumbles of a potential Google browser -- just wait.

Version 8 of Opera's sleek, fast and secure browser is slated to be released soon, if not by Tuesday. It promises a grasp of the Web that actually matches the reach of surfers.

After a few test drives among internetnews.com editors, we think this version could convince people to actually pay to improve their browsing experience. It's that good. But is it good enough to pony up about $40 for? (There is a free version you can download too.)

As they say in the sports world: You make the call.

One thing is clear with the latest version of Opera: The Oslo-based company has pulled out all the stops to strut its knowledge of the Web and Web standards, starting with its use of CSS . The company's CTO helped author the cascading style sheet standard of formatting Web pages, so it's no surprise that effects in Opera are snazzier than ever.

Plus, Opera is now integrated with Adobe's design and publishing environment, Creative Suite 2. That puts Opera in the driver's seat as developers use Adobe's GoLive to build Web pages for both desktops and mobile devices.

Integrating Opera with Creative Suite lets Web designers see how page content looks on a small screen. Tired of scrolling horizontally, vertically, and all over creation to find yourself to the right spot on your mobile device? Opera's Small-Screen Rendering (SSR) technology in the software automatically reformats Web pages to fit the screen of mobile phones, or any device. Size really doesn't matter here -- the browser analyzes incoming data and helps render the screen in a natural, easy to view format.

Tabbed browsing? If you're a Firefox fan -- and their legions are growing because of this feature alone -- you'll find it even more appealing in Opera. After all, this crew helped promote the idea of tabbed browsing. The latest version offers tiles, cascades and panels, to name a few ways of keeping track of all the pages you're running at once.

There's also the Opera Voice feature, which lets you tell your browser where to go. It can also read from documents.

Jon S. von Tetzchner, Opera's CEO, tells internetnews.com that version 8 uses the same code basics that compete with Microsoft, Firefox and Netscape on the desktop. And it addresses the rendering issue with all the standards the W3C has decided upon -- no plug-ins or ActiveX needed. So how'd they do it?

"To a certain extent, the problem has been that a typical Web page is a fixed-width of 800 pixels," he explained. "It has multiple colors, and so on. What Opera does is make it into one color, and then gets to work resizing the images for you that don't necessarily fit on the screen."

The browser removes images that don't make sense, typically smaller stuff that is not critical to the page. You end up with a page that feels natural and looks good. The company's work on CSS also means that it is providing different style sheets for different formats, depending on the developer's needs.

You want to see how your page looks on a desktop? Done. How it appears on a mobile device? Press a button. No moving into different platforms, or noodling the WAP crap. It's as simple as using one source of code and displaying it in different units.

"That's what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned in the first version of Web standards," von Tetzchner says. "There is no reason to be doing [these same] things with plug-ins. You can do everything through standards."

But will they pay? Opera has 10 years of history to work against, after Mosaic and Netscape defined the rules of the game by ushering in the era of free in 1995. Would a million -- then a billion -- Web pages have bloomed if browsers charged back then? No way.

But we now have the maturity of a decade of browsing and Web development under our belts. And in many ways, our expectations are exceeding the ability of HTML or XHTML to deliver.

And expectations are growing. We think people will want to choose browsers based on how they behave -- and how secure they are. The cookie-handling feature in Opera is but one example of the level of security baked into Opera's latest.

Bill Gates made waves when he recently announced that a new version of IE would be shipping in updated versions of Windows/XP. Firefox is, well, on fire with more people discovering it every day. The next browser era is upon us.

The question is, will that era include a willingness to pay for a better browsing experience.

Erin Joyce is executive editor of internetnews.com